Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Adventures In Rap #3: "The Breaks"

A few years back a friend gave me a mix containing "The Breaks," and it was upon hearing "The Breaks" that I first began to wonder if a journey through the history of rap might be more worthwhile than I had otherwise assumed. "The Breaks" surprised me in two ways: 1) it sounded like disco, and 2) it was really, really corny.

I had heard of Kurtis Blow, and I believe I had heard of "The Breaks," and I believe I possessed a vague understanding of Kurtis Blow as a groundbreaking rap artist, and, based on a cursory impression of rap, I had assumed that even early rap was screamingly tough. So imagine my surprise when I encountered edgy, threatening lyrics such as these: "Brakes on a bus, brakes on a car/Breaks to make you a superstar/Breaks to win and breaks to lose/But these here breaks will rock your shoes." "Rock your shoes"? Not even New Kids On The Block had ever stooped that low. Or how about "If your woman steps out with another man/And she runs off with him to Japan/And the IRS says they want to chat/And you can't explain why you claimed your cat"? What was this, a breakfast cereal commercial? I mean, "Rapper's Delight" is pretty tame by modern standards, but "The Breaks" makes "Rapper's Delight" seem like "Straight Outta Compton." Ladies and Gentlemen, Kurtis Blow: the Godfather of PG Rap.

And yet, the endless barrage of hardships Blow catalogues over the course of the song somehow manages, in a way, to undercut the silly party-anthem vibe of the performance. It's like Roberto Benigni clowning and mugging his way through the Holocaust. On the surface "The Breaks" may appear to be one groovy dance tune, but dig a little deeper and it's a raging bummer. When Blow couples a rather outlandish misfortune with a rather mundane misfortune ("And you borrowed money from the mob/And yesterday you lost your job"), the effect is almost touching. Borrowing money from the mob? Oh, man, that's hysterical. Losing your job? All too realistic, and not funny at all. But, as the Buddha might say, life is suffering.

In some sense the "smile through the pain" attitude of "The Breaks" may have anticipated the darker turn rap would swiftly take. Perhaps this is the first crumbling rock in the avalanche of anger, resentment, and hostility that rap would arguably unleash. Or maybe Blow just wanted to rhyme "man" with "Japan."

P.S. It's worth noting that "breaks" in the song refers to both "tough luck" and actual musical breaks. Indeed, the song is quite truthful with its advertising, as there are several breaks of a danceable nature throughout. Sadly, breaks would not find a permanent place in the genre but that, of course, is the breaks.

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